The Nick of Time
(and other abrasions)
The Definition Of Hell
Al Bruno III
The following story was originally published by Eden Studios
For as long as there has been a City of Olathoe there have been cats. Some legends say that they are the keepers of the City’s secrets. That they know all and tell nothing. Others believe that they are the souls of the City’s original inhabitants, forever reincarnating in feline forms. More modern minded thinkers theorize that they were drawn to the City because of the powerful alpha waves produced by its citizens. Over the centuries laws have been passed to protect them, parks had been set aside for their use and whole religions had sprung up in the wake of their mystery.
Mr. Nagaki never gave them much thought, he went about his business, they went about theirs. But now he found himself standing before the locked gates of the park on Kissos lane, led here by the last dwindling fragment of Liko’s memory.
Everywhere there were signs warning that trespassing in the park was punishable by death. Only felines were welcome here. Death, however was the least of Mr. Nagaki’s worries right now. He scrambled over the cold, slick wall to find himself knee deep in snow. In a matter of steps he left the City of Olathoe behind. The park grew wild with trees as tall as houses and blades of grass so long that even now the tips protruded from the drifts like stubble.
Cats padded in and around the trees, so many that he quickly gave up all hope of making a count. They seemed to be following him, watching him.
Up ahead, in the center of a grove of wilting elms he spied the Carillon. It was a tall, elaborate edifice of stone and stained glass. The wide sloping walls were carved with images of cats. Decades of neglect had taken their toll, the walls were stained and worn, the stained glass windows were cracked and broken. He had to give the Wu-Han credit. This was a perfect hiding place. The ornate bell tower had once been a haven for cat worshippers, modern day disciples of Bast. They made the mistake of offending the Regent in some small way and as punishment had been hunted down and slaughtered. The Regent however hadn’t been mad enough to raze the Carillon and burn the park. No one wanted to repeat the mistakes of doom-shrouded Ulthar.
Bao… he found himself thinking as he approached the wide brass door, Bao always liked cats.
There was a dull impact in the center of his back. Mr. Nagaki looked down to see the tip of an arrow protruding from his chest. He spun his claw fingers at the ready to see figures emerging from the snow, charging towards him; one of them was notching another arrow in his compound bow. They’d buried themselves and waited for him.
There were five of them in total, one had the bow and arrow, the others all had swords. Magic and explosions had failed Wu-Han, it looked as though he was now going to try dismemberment.
Another arrow caught him in the throat, lodging itself halfway in his neck.
Then the swordsmen were on him. He blocked two of their attacks with the hardened bone of his forearms. The third swordsman swung at his legs, cutting deep into the muscle. The fourth moved in and disemboweled him. Another arrow grazed Nagaki’s half-flayed face.
The thick loops of intestine slithered from the hole in Nagaki’s gut and grasped hungrily at the throat of the fourth swordsman. The archer fired again, but this time Nagaki was ready and he ducked down to let the arrow pass over him and catch the third swordsman squarely in the right eye.
The fourth swordsman dropped his blade and flailed mindlessly at the strangling intestines, his eyes bulged, his face turning purple. The first swordsman moved to help him and Nagaki darted his head forward and clamped his teeth down on the vulnerable softness of his neck.
The second swordsman swung wildly at the Dread Lord, all skill lost to panic, Mr. Nagaki backhanded him, pulping his nose. The first swordsman screeched like an animal. Nagaki held on, shaking his head like a frenzied dog. The archer fried again, another arrow embedding itself in the Dread Lord.
The first swordsman pulled free, a fine spray of blood jetting from his neck in time with his every heartbeat. Mr. Nagaki’s intestines released the fourth swordsman’s limp form. Blood flecked the snowy ground as the first swordsman staggered drunkenly, crimson bubbles seeping from the wound in his neck.
Another arrow sailed past Mr. Nagaki; he ignored it, turning his attention instead to the second swordsman- the last swordsman. His fingerblades reduced the man’s face to ribbons, his eyes to a weeping ruin. Mr. Nagaki let him fall to the ground. He pulled the arrows from his neck and chest, throwing them into the snowy Earth. The last swordsman was stirring, trying to fight, trying to live.
Mr. Nagaki turned him on his back with a single wellplaced kick to the ribs. He raised a booted foot and stomped hard on the swordsman's shoulder, the collarbone broke with an audible snap. The last swordsman’s cries became shrill. He stomped again, grinding the clavicle beneath his bootheel until the bones had been reduced to shards. As he worked, a half dozen more arrows flew past him; all fell wide of their mark.
When it was over, Mr. Nagaki looked up at the trembling archer. He was trying to load his last arrow, but his hands were shaking too hard. When he realized the Dread Lord was staring at him he dropped the bow with a yelp.
Mr. Nagaki’s glare deepened. “Boo.” he said.
The archer ran screaming into the woods.
The dead man retracted his intestines before opening the Carillon’s tarnished brass doors and stepping inside. There in the half-light the Gray Mandarin was waiting for him and he wasn’t alone. The sight of her sent a ragged gasp from Nagaki’s tattered lungs.
No! It’s another trick of the Monkey King. An illusion!
But this was no trick, no illusion she was real and she was walking towards him. He could hear the soft pad of her footfalls, see the gleam of the moisture on her pale red lips. Her capillaries were flushed from being in the cold. There was no fear in her eyes.
“Bao.” he said again.
The Gray mandarin smiled thinly, “An offering for you Dread Lord.”
“Bao is in… paradise.”
“Paradise?” she said, “Paradise without you?”
His every instinct screaming for him to attack, for him to fulfill his covenant, he could only speak, “I don’t understand…”
“The Celestial Kings prevaricated Dread Lord Nagaki,” the Wu-Han leaned against the grim-coated wall, “there is no Heaven, nor is there a Hell. There is only the infinite recursion of the psyche.”
“I don’t believe that.” the dead man shook his head.
She was right in front of him now, she reached out to stroke his cheek, “Look at the world around you, not a single leaf goes to waste, why would a soul?”
Mr. Nagaki flinched away from her touch, “How did you find all this out? How did you find out about-”
The Gray Mandarin stroked his chin as he spoke, “The legends about you are abundant, if diluted, that in tandem with magic and supposition are all that I required. It was Jack Diamond who found her, we realized that her soul would be searching for you, reincarnating again and again in an ineffective bid to find you again. She was so close, all along she was so close and the so-called ‘world protectors’ never told you.”
“They helped me remember.” she placed her delicate hands on his gore streaked chest, “I know what you sacrificed for me… I know what you’ve been through…”
Mr. Nagaki reeled at her touch, “I never meant- I’m-”
The gray mandarin drew closer, “I have a proposal for you. The Regent is corrupt, she places her own interests above those of his citizens. I mean to supplant her, but I need your support. You can strike at her in ways that no one else ever could. If you do this for me I will produce a new body for you, a living body”
“A Dread Lord cannot betray his covenant.” Mr. Nagaki whispered, “I would be annihilated. Bao would…”
“But Bao is here.” the Gray Mandarin said with a waggle of his finger, “The Tian-wang professed you that if you availed yourself to them she would be spared Hell. Don’t you see? They lied.”
She drew in close deluging him with her warmth, “I forgive you.”
“They said you would never see her again, another falsehood. You can be happy again.” The Wu-Han approached standing before the dead man, “Do you even remember what it was to be happy?”
The Dread Lord swayed, “I-I can’t- This doesn’t- I need-”
Her hand slipped beneath his shirt, her touch leaving warm trails in its wake as she gently fingered his wounds, “I need you my beloved…” she cooed, “I need to feel your touch… over me… in me.”
Mr. Nagaki smiled gently down at her, he closed his eyes and broke her neck with blissful ease.
“What?” the Gray Mandarin gasped with horror, as cold, greasy loops of intestine slithered over him, restraining him. He struggled wildly as they drew him closer to the Dread Lord, “But that was Bao! ”
“And you, you talk about Hell as though you understand. Do you know what Hell is Wu-Han?” Mr. Nagaki loomed over him, watching him writhe. With his fingerblades he began to cut into the Gray Mandarin with a surgeon’s precision, “Hell is to love no longer.”